"Warning Shadows" - Arthur Robison (1923)

The artistic success of Dr. Arthur Robison’s Warning Shadows (Schatten – eine Nächtliche Halluzination, literally, “Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination”, 1923) is as much attributable to artistic designer Albin Grau and cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner as it is to the director. Paul Rotha, the eminent British film historian, had these words to say about it:
At the time of production in 1922, Warning Shadows was a remarkable achievement. Its purely psychological direction opened new attributes of the cinema. It was a rare instance of complete filmic unity, with the possible exception of the unnecessary roof-garden scene. The continuity of theme, the smooth development from one sequence into another, the gradual communication of the thoughts of the characters, were flawlessly presented. It carried an air of romance, of fantasy, of tragedy. Every filmic property for the expression of mood, for the creation of atmosphere, that was known at the time was used with imagination and intelligence. Its supreme value as an example of unity of purpose, of time, of place, of theme, cannot be over-estimated.
Robison, an American brought up in Germany, shot the film entirely without subtitles, a startling new technique. The titles seen in today’s prints were added by a zealous distributor. The ambiguity of the shadows in the film has a Freudian inspiration. The little illusionist steals shadows and opens the flood gates of the repressed unconscious desires of the other characters in the film, who suddenly start acting out their secret fantasies. In a phantasmagoria shadows temporarily replace living beings, who become for a time passive spectators. The pace of the film increases as it goes, and the slow rhythm of the opening is left far behind.

The Germanic fascination with shadows and mirror images, of which tradition Peter Schlemihl is an excellent example, is related to the horror of non-existence – a state of mind that seems to flourish during and after wars with massive deaths on the battlefield.

Lotte Eisner (The Haunted Screen) remarks:
Thanks to an exceptional vigour of inspiration, the characters in this film free themselves from the abstract uniformity imposed by Expressionism. They act with an almost animal intensity.

"Waxworks" - Paul Leni (1924)

Paul Leni, the director of Waxworks (1924), was an Expressionist painter who had worked with Max Reinhardt as a set designer and poster designer for the cinema. The essence of Waxworks is said to be taken from the German title of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), "Das Kabinett Des Dr. Caligari”: the German title of Waxworks was “Das Wachsfigurenkabinett”. It was supposed to be a deliberate amplification of the fairground ambience, but with a more skilful technique.

The screenplay was written by Henrik Galeen, who had also done the scripts for Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Wegener’s The Golem (1920). Here, instead of one tyrant, Galeen gives us three tyrants, played by Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, and Werner Krauss. In three successive episodes based on the imaginations of a starving young poet after looking at past tyrants being exhibited in a houses of wax.

The film has been criticized as having a purely decorative style, but the imaginative depiction of tents with mysterious shadows, innumerable electric signs, the merry-go-round, and a gigantic wheel turning in a welter of lights, all of this multiplied by super-impositions which thread across the screen almost like a spider’s web, show how far the German cinema had come since the rather arid abstraction of the Caligari fairground. Lotte Eisner, discussing Leni in The Haunted Screen, remarks that the
architectural details in the first two episodes reveal Leni’s skill as a designer. The roundness of the Oriental cupolas has a lively counterpart in the heavy turbans worn by the caliph’s courtiers. When the town of Baghdad appears, all light transparent curves, it is flat like the little diagrammatic town in Caligari, which has often been compared to the architecture in the paintings of Lyonel Feininger.
Leni himself went so far as to say,
For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence no idea of reality. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves.
Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler) observes that
Waxworks culminates in scenes which, exceeding their task of illustrating the plot, penetrate the nature of tyrannical pow3er. The insistence with which, during those years, pictorial imagination reverted to this subject indicates that the problem of absolute authority was an intrinsic concern of the collective mind.
In this regard it is interesting that Sergei Eisenstein loosely used Waxworks as a model for some of his sets in Ivan the Terrible (1944).

Of special interest in Waxworks, is the celebrated “Jack-the-Ripper” scene which brings the tyrant-image to its most spectacular expression. Kracauer calls it “a very short sequence which must be counted among the greatest achievements of film art.”

Leni went on to direct successfully in America, notably The Cat and the Canary (1927), before he died in 1929.

East Asian Film

Films of East Asia:

"Days of Being Wild" - Wong Kar Wai (1990)

With his second feature, Days of Being Wild (A Fei Zheng Chuan, which means literally, “The True Story of Ah Fei”, 1990), Wong Kar Wai clearly established his own unique style of cinematic expression. A cult was born. His first film, As Tears Go By (Wong Gok Ka Moon, 1988) had been a huge critical and commercial success, but its style was something of a hybrid. That earlier film had been a combination that mixed the stylistics of Hong Kong Triad Gangster films (derived from the Chinese Wuxia literature of legendary martial arts heroes) and his own emerging aesthetic of romantic longing. It was the gangster genre aspects of As Tears Go By that drew the big crowds, but it was probably Wong’s dramatic stylistics that helped it sweep the Hong Kong Film Academy Awards. With Days of Being Wild, the gangster characteristics moved to the background, and the loneliness of the broken heart moves to the fore. Certainly at that time the Hong Kong gangster film was in its heyday, and in that same year of 1990, one of its greatest films, John Woo’s Bullet in the Head was released. But after his first commercial success, Wong now apparently had the confidence to move away from the gangster genre and make films according to his own personal tastes. Starting with Days of Being Wild, Wong became truly the cinematic Maestro of the Broken Heart.

Like As Tears Go By and other popular Hong Kong films, Days of Being Wild was loaded with glamorous Hong Kong media personalities who double as both movie stars and popular recording artists. These included Leslie Cheung (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing), Any Lau (Andy Lau Tak-Wah), Jacky Cheung (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau – he would appear in nine films that year, including a starring role in Bullet in the Head), Maggie Cheung (Zhāng Mànyù), and Carina Lau (Carina Lau Kar-ling). One should not underestimate the difficulty of making films in the big city – not the least of which is dealing with the real Hong Kong Triad gangsters, who have an unhealthy involvement in Hong Kong film production. For example during the shooting of Days of Being Wild, star actress Carina Lau was abducted and topless photos were taken of her (and later published) as punishment for having refused a Triad film offer. Such distractions notwithstanding, Wong further complicated the fliming process by initiating his now-characteristic practice of improvising on the set and not working from a prepared shooting script. This was also the first film for which he teamed up with the brilliant Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. For Doyle, this was his first Chinese language film, and from here on he became Wong’s regular cinematographer (and perhaps also co-creator) , as well as doing the photography for other prominent Chinese directors, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. From the very beginning of Days of Being Wild, Doyle’s adroit cinematography of dynamic hand-held and close-in tracking shots creates an intense intimacy that will provide the dominant mood for the film.

The story is essentially a relentless visual examination of unrequited longing, missed connections, and loneliness, and the events presented are centred around the life of Yuddy York (Leslie Cheung), a self-centred playboy who takes pleasure in manipulating others. But the film is not so much about Yuddy as it is about all the people around him who believe their lives are only meaningful in his company. Yuddy simply provides the occasion for what seems to be their unavoidable fate of dependency and suffering. The plot, if you want to call it that, is set in 1960 and comprises five basic acts.
  1. Li-zhen and Yuddy. In the opening scene, before the movie titles, Yuddy is seen meeting and flirting with the beautiful Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who is working at a fast-food kiosk. Yuddy is arrogant, but Su Li-zhen is intrigued. After the title credits (whose rolling background scene, we will later learn, is a tropical forest in the Philippines), Yuddy reappears to flirt with Li-zhen some more, and he tells her that a specific, but arbitrary, minute that they spent together, 3:00, April 16, 1960, will persist forever in both their memories. Soon they are lovers in bed, and Li-zhen is clearly enamoured with the egotistical Yuddy, who spends much of his time obsessively combing his hair in the mirror and admiring himself. When she asks him to marry her, he refuses, and the crushed Li-zhen walks out.
  2. Lulu and Yuddy. Yuddy visits his Filipino stepmother, who was apparently a courtesan and now has enough money to spend it on gigolos. Disgusted with her dissolute life, Yuddy beats up her gold-digging boyfriend and then steals his girlfriend, Lulu (Carina Lau). Lulu is a beautiful go-go dancer, and she, too, falls immediately for Yuddy. Yuddy spends much of his time smoking in bed, pouting, and posturing himself like the cool dude that he fashions himself to be. The two beautiful girls seem to love it, though. Without much explanation or motivation, Yuddy’s pal, Zeb (Jacky Cheung) shows up for awhile, long enough for us to see that he is hopelessly attracted to Lulu, and then departs.
  3. Li-zhen and Tide. We now go back to the torch-holding Li-zhen, who we learn has been spending her time lurking outside of Yuddy’s apartment, hoping to run into him. She meets a beat cop, Tide, and they become friends and spend a long time discussing how to cure Li-zhen of her obsessive infatuation for Yuddy.
  4. Lulu and Yuddy again. Now the pace slows down, with a number of choppy, disconnected scenes. Most of these scenes depict Lulu’s own submissive and humiliating, but passionate, infatuation for Yuddy, who responds disdainfully. Eventually the bored and frustrated Yuddy decides to head off to the Philippines to track down his real mother, who gave him up for adoption at birth and whom he has never been able to identify. When Lulu learns of Yuddy’s departure, she angrily trashes his apartment and walks out, with the lovelorn Zeb trailing after her. But Lulu rejects Zeb’s faithfulness – she only wants the cool dude, Yuddy, not kindness. So Zeb responds by beating her, probably thinking that treating women that way, as Yuddy does, is the only way to be successful with them.
  5. The Philippine termination. Yuddy finally arrives in the Philippines, but he is unsuccessful in finding his mother. Unlike the previous four acts, all of which take place almost exclusively at night, this act is mostly set in the daytime. One day Tide, who has quit his job as a policeman and is now a sailor newly arrived in the Philippines, finds Yuddy passed out on the street and takes him back to his apartment. (This meeting seems extremely contrived, but the actors managed to pull it off with relative aplomb.) Yuddy later meets some gangsters at the train station (Tide just happens to be in the vicinity, too) in order to buy a stolen US passport for himself, and in the middle of the negotiation, he grabs it and runs away. A brutal fight breaks out, during which Tide, conveniently there to help out, shoots a few gangsters. They both escape and hop onto a departing train. They haven’t completely escaped, though, because a hood shows up on the train and shoots the snoozing Yuddy and then disappears. With Yuddy now dying, Tide and Yuddy talk about life. Tide, having learned from Li-zhen about the minute at 3:00, April 16, 1960, asks Yuddy if he remembers it. Yuddy says yes, but that if Tide meets Li-zhen again to tell her that he doesn’t remember it. The movie then ends with separate shots of Lulu, having just arrived in the Philippines in search of Yuddy, and Li-zhen back in Hong Kong and apparently trying to phone the now-departed Tide. All connections have been missed, and all the characters are adrift.
At the very end, there is a coda that seems to have no meaning or connection with the rest of the film. Tony Leung, not previously seen, is shown in the Philippines train grooming himself like the cool dude Yuddy and apparently preparing to engage in some gambling at the train card table. For some reason, this character is linked to the characters Tony Leung played in Wong Kar Wai’s later, In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004).

Days of Being Wild is pervasively gloomy. Yuddy, spoiled from his privileged upbringing, apparently puts the blame for his aimlessness on his illegitimacy. He doesn’t belong anywhere, and the end of his journey does not bring any enlightenment. Tide, the other important male character, rejects Yuddy’s obsessive egotism, but he is a rather unreflective, conventional sort and doesn’t project any positive alternative to Yuddy’s nihilism. So without much character development or resolved narrative conflicts, it is not surprising, then, that Days of Being Wild was not a big hit at the box office. Nevertheless, Wong Kar Wai has his admirers, and I am one of them. So, too, must be much of the Hong Kong Film Awards committee, since “Days of Being Wild” won the 1991 awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Cheung), Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography.

What makes the film appealing may perhaps be different aspects for different viewers. Some of today’s viewers may be fascinated by the role of the self-absorbed Yuddy, played by the boyishly handsome, Leslie Cheung, who was also a big-time Cantopop music star. And added scrutiny of Cheung’s performance may arise if viewers are mindful of his bisexual lifestyle and the fact that he later committed suicide in 2003. But even though the role of Yuddy provides the unifying thread, the real focus of the film is on the roles of the two girlfriends, played by Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau. To see these two beautiful women so openly and hopelessly in love, so vulnerable to the face-losing pains of rejection, is what stirs the emotions of many of the male viewers. The entire movie conjures up the feelings of loneliness in the big city – the crowded close quarters, where human interactions are frequent, but meaningless. It’s always nighttime in the urban jungle, with empty gestures, missed connections, and the waiting for fulfilment that never comes. In Days of Being Wild, these moments of melancholy are heightened and exaggerated, the way a rhapsodic musical piece can intensify the feelings of sadness.

But although Wong Kar Wai mapped out the cinematic architecture of melancholy, Days of Being Wild was not without flaws. For example, the narrational perspective of the silent witness (the audience) is relatively detached from everyone involved: from the two girlfriends and from the two men. The two girlfriends are seen very much from the outside, basically from an observing man’s perspective. Yuddy is opaque and difficult to empathise with, while Tide is taciturn and unreflective. So there is no protagonist with whom the viewer can closely identify, or at least share some common concerns. Nevertheless, it did evoke a (perhaps overly hopeful) belief of more promising film experiences to come.

F. W. Murnau

Films of F. W. Murnau:

"Faust" - F. W. Murnau (1926)

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was probably the greatest of the early German film directors. In the words of Lotte Eisner (The Haunted Screen), he “creates the most overwhelming and poignant images in the whole of German cinema.” Murnau’s Faust - eine Deutsche Volkssage (1926) brought the German film to a pinnacle it was never again to know. Faust, the ultimate in Expressionist chiaroscuro, was the last film Murnau made in Germany before he began his new career in Hollywood. Paul Rotha was to mourn subsequently, “that such an artist as Murnau should have gone to Hollywood . . . is infinitely regrettable.”

Though there is some controversy as to whether Faust effectively conveyed the significant motifs inherent in its subject matter, the technical virtuosity of the film is unquestionable. Gerhart Hauptmann, Germany’s foremost poet at the time, even composed the film titles. Eisner sounds almost reverent when declaring that the “chaotic density of the opening shots, the light dawning in the mists, the rays beaming through the opaque air, and the visual fugue which diapasons round the heavens, are breathtaking.” No other director, not even Lang, ever succeeded in conjuring up the supernatural as masterfully as this. Whereas Lang attempt to give faithful reproduction of the famous paintings he sometimes uses, Murnau, who was trained as an art historian, elaborates the memory he h as kept of them and transforms th em into personal visions. Perhaps Murnau’s homosexuality made him feel the terror and vulnerability of existence more forcefully, but, in any even, all his films bear witness to a complex inner struggle he waged in an alien world.

In the two years since his The Last Laugh (1924), Murnau had tempered his use of the moving camera to subordinate it to the overall rhythm of the film. An indirect sense of fatality is given to the viewer by Murnau’s technique of shooting Faust and Gretchen as if from the eyes of Mephisto. The invisibility of Mephisto renders his presence more ominous and the plight of the protagonists more hopeless. One might have hoped, however, that Murnau had been able to restrain the fatuous overacting of Jannings as Mephisto.

As in other Murnau films, the casual viewer might find Faust static and ornamentally heavy because of slow camera rhythm, but the fluidity and expressive beauty of the film is there for anyone who chooses to look.

"Destiny" - Fritz Lang (1921)

Destiny (Der Müde Tod, 1921), along with Fritz Lang’s succeeding effort Siegfried (1924), stands as one of the most essentially Expressionistic German films. The story, part legend, part fairy tale, is primarily a dream-vision of a young woman who is searching for her missing lover. The dream consists of three elaborately conceived episodes involving the young lovers as they try to elude the murderous designs of a cruel tyrant, who is always aided by the Angel of Death. This three-stories-within-a-story compositional device was later adopted in Waxworks (1924).

Lang had been the original directorial choice for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but was forced to decline due to other commitments. For Destiny he chose as two of his art designers, Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm, both of whom had designed the sets for Caligari. Together with Robert Herlth they arranged such a memorable cinematographic decor, that compared to it, in the words of Lotte Eisner (The Haunted Screen), “the sets of Caligari appear reduced to purely arabesques, totally lacking the magic of chiaroscuro.” Lang’s use of lighting was as innovative as the original ideas of Max Reinhardt. Both realized the great extent to which light sculpts and transforms space. After Destiny, the technique of emphasizing the relief and outline of an object became standard. It became almost an article of faith to have sets lit from the base so as to transform and deform the banal shapes of tings by means of unexpected lines – or to have enormous spotlights to one side of the set, so as to use the projecting surfaces for strident shadow effects. Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler), recollecting these effects, expressed the following:
The long-lived power of DESTINY’s imagery is the more amazing as all had to be done with the immovable, hand-cranked camera, and night shots were still impossible. These pictorial visions are so precise that they sometimes evoke th eillusion of being intrinsically real. A “drawing brought to life”, the Venetian episode resuscitates genuine Renaissance spirit through such scenes as the carnival procession – silhouettes staggering over a bridge – and the splendid cockfighting radiating bright and cruel Southern passions in the mode of Stendhal or Nietzsche.
The environment, unlike some of the purely decorative films, is crucial to the meaning. Fate, holding all of the characters in its inevitability, becomes the main actor, and manifests itself in the settings. Even Death, who appears almost sympathetic to the appeal from the girl (the German title of the film means “the tired Death”), is compelled by Fate to carry on with his grisly work. It is not surprising that such thematic content has interested modern political historians.

"The Golem" - Paul Wegener and Carl Boese (1920)

The Golem, How He Came Into the World (Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt Kam, 1920), by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, is an early masterpiece of lighting and special effects and immediately influenced succeeding German production. Wegener had been for some years a top actor with Max Reinhardt’s theater in Berling, and Reinhardt’s influence is obvious in this fim. In fact most of the top German film actors, Basserman, Moissi, Winterstein, Beidt, Krauss, Loos, and Jannings, came from Reinhardt’s troupe. Reinhardt was the “Kaiser” of the Berlin theater and, often because of economic hardship after the war, developed ingenious lighting effects in order to minimize the staging expenses. Reinhardt, not an Expressionist but an “impressionist”, used his lighting and new acting techniques to develop a theater of intimacy known as the Kammerspiele, whose conception also later influenced the work of Pabst and Murnau.

Wegener uses every one of Reinhardt’s lighting effects: the stars glinting against a velvety sky, the fiery glow of an alchemist’s furnace, the little oil-lamp lighting a corner of a darkened room when Miriam appears, the servant holding a lantern, the row of blazing torches flickering in the night, and, in the synagogue, the light trembling over the prostrate, indistinct forms wrapped in cloaks, with the sacred, haloed seven-branched candelabra emerging from the darkness..

Since Wegener was primarily an actor, he liked to surround himself with men of great technical ability. Thus his set designer was the brilliant architect Hans Poelzig, creator of the Grosses Schauspielhaus in Berlin. Poelzig expresses all a building’s dynamic ecstatic, fantastic, and pathetic elements in the facade without extending any renewal of forms to the layout itself. Thus the non-abstract sets of The Golem are a far cry from those of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This lends a certain stability which heightens the intensity of the Expressionistic shock lighting effects, such as the livid, angui9shed faces of the faithful in the synagogue.

The idea of a monster representing the uncontrollable or anti-social element in the personality of its creator is a natural for Expressionistic presentation, which is always an exterior manifestation of the interior, non-objective world. In fact, Wegener himself had made an earlier version of The Golem in 1914, which is now lost. This depiction of the other self is a favourite Germanic image. Other examples of this treatment (known as “doppelganger”) in the dearly German film appear in two versions of The Student of Prague and Homunculus.

The reality of the other self is far from a mere stylistic tool; it is an idea embedded deeply in the consciousness of Western society and is all the more intriguing in light of such writings as those of the British psychoanalyst, R. D. Laing.

"The Blue Angel" - Josef von Sternberg (1930)

Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930), was not his first sound film (Thunderbolt was, in 1929), but it was the first German sound film. Though shot prior to the filming of Morocco (1930), The Blue Angel was released in the United States just afterwards. Unlike some of the awkward early efforts in using the new cumbersome sound technology, The Blue Angel still stands today as one of the stellar expressions in film history. The story charts the tragic downfall of an older German professor as a result of his ruinous infatuation with a lower class cabaret singer. The novel on which the script is based, Professor Unrat, by Heinrich Mann, was said to be a pointed attack on the hypocrisy of German society and politics in the pre-World War I period. But von Sternberg altered this story to focus on one of his signal themes: the fatal, all-consuming power of romantic love. In the story, Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) is a professor, a respected man of high stature in his local German city, and his position commands respect from his peers and fear from his pupils -- for him, it defines who he is. When he falls for Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the cabaret singer/dancer, he forsakes his position in society and enters into a free-fall plunge that can only end in his own destruction. The narrative can be partitioned into four thematic acts, although the boundaries are not sharply defined:
  1. Introduction (30 minutes). Professor Rath is shown to be a rather pompous and self-regimented characters who teaches at the local gymnasium (note that the final-year gymnasium students would correspond to first-year college students today). While having his breakfast in his quarters, he is somewhat disturbed to see that his pet canary has died, and this perhaps is an unwanted reminder of our own inevitable vulnerability to natural forces. This will later be contrasted by the observation of the singing caged canary in Lola-Lola's room. Later in the professor’s classroom, he catches some of his more impudent students passing around photos of the singer, Lola-Lola, who is performing at the local cabaret, The Blue Angel. He decides to visit this venue and see if he can put a stop to his students' frequenting this den of corruption. But while trying to collar some students he has spied at the cabaret, he stumbles into Lola-Lola’s dressing room, where he finds himself put off balance by the beautiful and confidently unaffected singer. He is nonetheless indignant with the sinful surroundings and angrily storms out to his own abode.
  2. Seduction (39 minutes). The next day the professor returns to the cabaret in order to recover his forgotten hat and to return Lola-Lola’s undergarment that had been secreted into his pocket during that first visit by his cheeky student. On this occasion he is charmed by Lola’s earthy openness and manner, in which she treats him not as a pillar of society, but as a man and as an equal. Soon she is being quite flirtatious, and the professor ultimately spends the night with her. For Lola, this is probably a common occurrence, but for the professor, it has changed his world. He tardily rushes back to his morning class, but the word is out about the professor’s nocturnal escapade, and his unruly and abusive students call him “Unrat”, meaning “rubbish”. He loses his position, but now blindly in love, he offers his hand to Lola-Lola in marriage. Perhaps seizing an unexpected opportunity for respectability, Lola accepts his proposal.
  3. The decline (7 minutes). With Rath now unemployed, Lola must continue to work as a singer, and Rath accompanies her as she travels with her performing company to other locales. Very rapidly we see that his role has been reduced to that of a servant, and all the formerly received respect has disappeared. But after five years of degeneration and denigration on the road, he is alarmed to learn that a further indignity awaits: the troupe is scheduled to revisit the Blue Angel, where his presence on stage as a clown is expected to attract a packed house of mocking former students and colleagues.
  4. The final debasement (26 minutes). Back in the old town at the Blue Angel, Rath is subjected to utter humiliation in front of the crowd, while he is cuckolded off stage by his wife, who is now attracted to a performing “strong man” that she has just met. Rath ultimately goes berserk and finally makes his way back to his old desk at the gymnasium, where he slumps forward and dies.
Here is some earlier commentary of mine that provides additional background on this subject:
Josef von Sternberg, one of the few internationally admired American directors, achieved his greatest success with his one German film. Sternberg emigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1908, and after a decade of apprenticeship in the film industry during which the “von” was added to his name by an image-minded producer, he gained wide critical acclaim with his first directorial effort, The Salvation Hunters (1925). Thereafter came a string of silent screen successes, including The Last Command (1928), starring Emil Jannings, who, like many of countrymen, had been imported by Hollywood after the international box office smashes of films like The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann, 1924) and Variety (1925). The sound film was often an artistic stumbling block for established silent directors, but von Sternberg’s first effort with sound, Thunderbolt (1929), was a convincing realization of the medium.

Meanwhile, Jannings, unable to master English, had returned to Germany, and, at his request, von Sternberg was sent for to assist the star in his transition to sound films, despite personality differences between the two during the filming of The Last Command. They decided to make a film based on the novel Professor Unrat, a violent attack on Imperial Germany, written in 1905 by Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas Mann). Von Sternberg was to make vast alterations translating the novel, which had been an old abandoned project of G. W. Pabst, to the screen, including the elimination of the last third of the novel. Later when there was public criticism for those changes (in Germany) and when, for complex political reason, Ufa tried to dissociate its film from the radical leftist, Mann, the author replied simply, “Had I been more mature (when I wrote it), I would have developed the character of Professor Unrath more humanly, as in the film.”

There was disagreement in the production company as to the female lead opposite Jannings. Legend has it that von Sternberg finally chose the obscure musical comedy actress, Marlene Dietrich, after hearing her utter her one and only line in a stage show: “Hurray for the gentleman who has won the Grand Prize.”

The result of all this was The Blue Angel, which was released in German and English language versions and which ranks with the greatest films of all time. The film marked a transition for von Sternberg from his earlier harsh realism to his subsequent Baudelairian obsession with feminine ambiguity and erotic visual imagery. What causes this film to transcend the trivial genre of bourgeois male corrupted by bohemian female is the subtly conceived role of Lola-Lola.. The directness of Dietrich, contrasting well with the elaborateness of Jannings, established the ground for her magnetic appeal. Her impassive, even sometimes sympathetic, innocence renders the fate of the Professor into true tragedy.

Critical comment on the film is frequently divided between its so-called dream-like nature and its sordid realism. What is actually achieved is a brilliant synthesis of expressionism and artistic detail to bring about a realism of the imagination of memory. The expressive power arising from von Sternberg’s control of the cinematic environment to its last detail results in effects even more strongly felt than those of Pabst. Siegfried Kracauer, commenting on The Blue Angel, observed that von Sternberg was the “master of the art of rendering milieus.” As in Carl Mayer’s postwar films, the persistent interference of mute objects reveals the whole milieu (of The Blue Angel) as a scene of loosened instincts.

Von Sternberg, with The Blue Angel, had elevated Expressionism to the sound film and opened up new possibilities for its presentation. However, only von Sternberg, and later Orson Welles, had the technical virtuosity and artistic integrity to continue the Expressionist tradition successfully.
There are some wonderful features to this film that deserve further mention:
  • Both Jannings and Dietrich give superb performances. Jannings’s highly gestural presentation, derived from his silent movie experience, leads effectively to the dramatic gestures of the clown in the final scenes. Dietrich’s performance, by contrast, is a brilliantly natural presentation of the reflexively amoral and passionate aesthete. He embodies the neuroses of civilisation; she represents the innocence of the pagan. There is nothing cruel about Lola-Lola, but she can’t help being who she is and she embodies her own signature song: “Falling in Love Again”. This first sound-film performance of Dietrich was never surpassed for its mixture of uncompromising and unfathomable femininity. Overall, the dialogue and character attitudes are, despite the expressionistic tones in the film, very natural – they reflect an openness in the filmmaking of those days that would soon be curtailed by the Hays Code.
  • The strong man who seduces Lola-Lola at the end is an example of the mindlessly arrogant and rudely masculine lothario who would frequent many of von Sternberg’s later pictures. This person was always the animalistic counterweight to the romantic dreams implicit in von Sternberg’s aesthetic.
  • The expressionistic, shadow-laden environments are beautifully atmospheric, especially the decadent atmosphere of the cabaret stage and dressing rooms. These are meticulously crafted frames that achieve visual depth by shooting highlighted and backlit subjects through shadowy foreground scenery. The expressionist visuals are so dramatically well presented that the film can be pretty well understood without any semantic input from the sound track. In fact it may be better to watch the film without subtitles enabled.
  • Von Sternberg employs some stunning narrative "glissandos" as the plot moves along quickly. One example is the scene in which Rath asserts that he will not allow pictures of Lola-Lola to be sold, which slides smoothly into the next one in which Rath is, himself, hawking the same photos to her spectators.
What von Sternberg, Jannings, and Dietrich achieved in this work is one of the great monuments of doomed romantic passion. Von Sternberg would make other great films, but none better.

Fritz Lang

About Fritz Lang:
  • Michael E. Grost, "Fritz Lang", Classic Film and Television
Films of Fritz Lang:

"Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler" - Fritz Lang (1922)

Fritz Lang, one of the true geniuses of the cinema, has been one of the most successful as well. Trained as an architect and heavily influenced by the new techniques in lighting developed by max Reinhardt, Lang’s films are the most consistently pleasing of the German films to modern audiences.

For the script of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Ein Bild der Zeit (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922), Lang collaborated with his wife, Thea von Harbou. Despite the fantastical nature of this spy yarn, Lang isisted then, and so did Berlin critics, that the film was a document about the current world. Mabuse, like Caligari – an unscrupulous master mind, heads a gang of killers and criminals, all of whom he has u nder his power by hypnosis. Mabuse successfully evades identification by impersonating a psychiatrist, a drunken sailor, and a financial magnate. When Mabuse is finally apprehended by the forces of Virtue, he goes mad. The obvious parallel in this film to the Nazi criminality h as been frequently overemphasized, but the plot does suggest a kind of sociological milieu given to extremes. At least the plot does show how closely tyranny and chaos are interrelated. Unfortunately, however, it, like many other German films of this times, seems to present either demonic tyranny or chaos as the nly two possibilities.

Lang’s skill in the use of lighting and his concern for detail and authenticity are apparent from the first sequences. An example is the attack of the man bearing the contract in the train. On three occasions three characters consult their watches in three different places. Step by step, the intrigue moves forward, and the editing emphasized the quasi-simultaneity of the actions. As a young man, Sergei Eisenstein was so dazzled by the editing in this film that he obtain a copy of it for his own analysis.

Lang used Expressionism as a tool for his own creation of moods. In many ways he prefigured Hitchcock with his comic touches, his ability to introduce characters with a few deft strokes, and his overall flair for the “thriller”.

Attention has been dranw to the effectiveness of Lang’s shot wherein Mabuse’s face, a small bright spot ona black background is suddenly projected forward at frightening speed, until the cruel visage fills the screen. This technique was also used, in a modified way, in Murnau’s Nosteratu.

"Turtles Can Fly" - Bahman Ghobadi (2004)

Kurdish Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi’s third feature film, Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha Parvaz Mikonand, 2004) is like his two previous and very successful features, A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Marooned in Iraq (2002), again set in Kurdistan and with native, nonprofessional actors speaking in Kurdish. This is a place where international borders separate the Kurdish community into Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian groupings, and they both symbolise and identify the external political oppression under which the Kurdish people suffer. In Turtles Can Fly, the specific setting is Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Turkish border, and the events take place in 2003, just prior to the American invasion of Iraq, when the local Kurdish population was anticipating some sort of liberation that such an invasion might generate.

For me, Turtles Can Fly is Ghobadi’s most challenging film, and I am still struggling to come to terms with it. It is a very uneasy mixture of grim reality and allegorical fantasy. It contains elements of heartbreaking suffering, but interspersed with moments of childish silliness. The sum total remains fragmented in my mind, as I reflectively turn over various aspects of the film.

The story is set mostly inside a Kurdish refugee camp, populated almost entirely by young orphans whose parents have been killed by Saddam Hussein’s military. The children scrounge for everything, and many of them seem to belong to a gang that is led by a resourceful young teenager known as “Satellite” (Soran Ebrahim). Satellite has gotten his nickname on account of his being the only person in the camp who can set up a TV satellite dish and thereby connect the Kurdish inhabitants to the outside world -- an external world which may someday bring “deliverance” (from Saddam Hussein's tyranny -- as a consequence of an American attack on Iraq). Many of the children in the camp are crippled from land mine explosions, and Satellite’s most faithful lieutenant, Pashow, has a deformed leg, forcing him to hop around on crutches. Nevertheless, one of Satellite’s main "businesses" involves organising the camp children to risk further disabling injuries by going out in the countryside to disarm and collect landmines for resale in the black market.

Satellite soon becomes enamoured with Agrin, a very young teenage girl accompanied by her older brother, Hengov (who is also known as the “Armless Boy” for obvious reasons). Agrin and Hengov also carry about with them a blind 3-year-old child, who we later learn is actually Agrin’s son, born as a result of her having been raped by Iraqi soldiers. Agrin has been emotionally damaged by that rape, and throughout the film she seeks to get rid of her blind child by abandoning it in the wilderness or drowning it. In fact we have been signalled from the very first images of the film that she is suicidal, and when we gradually discover these facts about her past, we know why. She eventually succeeds in her efforts at self-destruction by first drowning her son and then finally killing herself.

Hengov, despite his armless condition, is a resourceful operative and viewed by Satellite to be something of a threat to his preeminence in the camp. And this threat grows in magnitude when Satellite learns that Hengov has the ability to see into the future. But Satellite eventually makes peace and seeks to become Hengov's friend in a vain attempt to get closer to Agrin. In the end the American invasion does take place, and for some of the children, at least, it offers some (probably illusory) hope for the future -- but not for Hengov and Satellite.

This film has been characterised by most American reviewers as a gritty, neo-realistic exercise, but I don’t see it as such, unless you are possibly thinking of de Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951), which was something of an outlier. Rather than neo-realism, Turtles Can Fly has the look and feel of a fantasy, whose allegorical aspects must be associated with whatever Satellite and Hengov may symbolise. Satellite is resourceful and optimistic, but his knowledge is pathetically limited: his technical skills, of which he boasts immensely, are only just a bit ahead of the others in the village. To a certain extent his boastful foolishness could be said to represent the limitations of reliance on Western technical learning, and he could be seen as a false prophet. On the other hand, he is self-reliant, generally good-natured, and never doubts himself -- all undeniably positive traits. Hengov’s condition and his prophetic capabilities are a counterbalance of some sort, but the underlying significance of all this is unclear to me.

Ghobadi does well, as he has done before, to fashion a film with visual continuity in what must have been very difficult conditions. He manages to create distinctive personalities and visual motifs for all his principal teenage characters. And these performers, none of whom have appeared in films before, all do pretty well under the circumstances. For some reason, I particuarly liked one of Satellite's loyal assistants, the earnest and often tearful Shirkooh. Nevertheless, the mixture of humour and tragedy presented in Turtles Can Fly did not come together for me the way it did in Marooned in Iraq. Of course, we can reflect on the fact that children everywhere will always have energy, good humour, and hopefulness, no matter what the circumstances are. The juxtaposition of this unquenchable, happy vitality with the ghastly horrors which the adult world visit on them make us frustrated with the way things are. But the melancholic beauty of Ghobadi’s two earlier films did not quite make its presence in this film. In spite of that, Ghobadi is uniquely original -- one of the major cinematic auteurs.

"Nosferatu the Vampyre" - Werner Herzog (1979)

Although the superstitious belief in vampires had been common in Eastern Europe for centuries, the modern shape of the vampire legend was essentially formed with the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula in 1897. The general popularity of the Dracula story was significantly expanded with F. W. Murnau’s landmark German Expressionist film, Noferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), which was an adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Carl Dreyer's intriguing treatment of the vampire theme in his Vampyr (1932) avoided Stoker's story for copyright reasons. But Werner Herzog directed an explicit remake of Murnau's film, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979). It is my claim that Murnau's film is a considerable improvement over Stoker's novel and that Herzog's film is an equally significant improvement over Murnau's classic. It is unfortunately ironic to note that in connection with Murnau's film, which concerns a long-held superstition, we have another widespread superstitious belief that haunts us today: the belief that intellectual ideas and expressions should be considered to be someone’s personal “property”. This overextension of a casual metaphor that an idea is like a physical object continues to cause harm when it is applied to legal interpretations. Since the 19th century most countries have enacted increasingly restrictive laws to enforce this misapprehension of what an idea is, and these laws have had the overall affect of diminishing free trade, increasing the polarity of wealth, and reducing your own freedom to express yourself. But most people seem to accept and live with this status quo, perhaps hoping that they, themselves, may someday benefit from this inequitable scheme. I bring the subject up here, because the issue of who owns the vampire legend had a significant impact on film history. Without the rights to Stoker’s novel, Murnau and his producer, Albin Grau, made significant changes to their film scenario, much to the betterment of the film, in order to distinguish their production from the novel. Unfortunately for Gau, although these changes were major enhancements to the narrative, they failed to save his film production company from being sued for copyright violation and driven out of business. Since Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) is a very faithful remake of Murnau’s classic, let’s consider the innovative changes in the story that Murnau introduced for his 1922 film.

Of course the overall outlines of both Stoker's novel and Murnau's film script are similar. Both the novel and Murnau's film concern a young solicitor who is sent off to far off Transylvania to settle a property purchasing arrangement for Count Dracula. Soon after arrival, the solicitor discovers himself imprisoned in the castle and comes to believe that Dracula is a vampire who is headed back to his own city to wreak destruction. Eventually the solicitor makes it back to his home city about the time that Dracula arrives, and a struggle ensues, not without casualties, between Dracula and the people attempting to thwart his evil plans.

Now let us examine some of the changes and additions that Murnau made. Some of them involved the inclusion of traditional Eastern European notions of vampiric lore that were not part of the Stoker novel. Here are six areas where Murnau departed from the novel:

1. The destruction wrought by the vampire is primarily the spread of plague. This is a more fundamentally disturbing and all-too-real threat, against which one feels powerless. A vampire is relatively tame, by comparison. The rapid and widespread mass extinction that plague and epidemics can bring about was something with which Europeans had excessive familiarity, and the horrors of World War I and the influenza epidemic were in recent memory.

2. While Dracula was depicted as a suave, smooth charmer who could seduce women with his aristocratic manners, Orlok was shown as a repulsive figure that had the appearance of a grotesque animated cadaver. There was an advantage to this. Orlok, whose rat-like appearance invokes images of the plague, was more associated with the “undead” than was Stoker’s Dracula. And the fear of the dead coming back to haunt the living seems to be a primitive fear that stretches across all cultures and time periods.

3. The names of the characters were all changed. Thus, for example
  • Count Dracula –> Count Orlok
  • Jonathon Harker (the solicitor) –> Thomas Hütter
  • Wilhelmina (“Mina”, the wife of Jonathon) –> Ellen
  • Professor Van Helsing –> Professor Bulwer
  • Renfield (a deranged person who could sense the proximity of Dracula) –> Knock
4. The two major women figures in Dracula, Lucy and Mina, were essentially collapsed into a single character, Ellen, in Nosferatu. This had the advantage of elevating Ellen to having greater narrative “weight” in the story.

5. The characters of Renfield and the solicitor’s employer in Dracula, are coalesced into a single character, Knock, in Nosferatu. I don’t see much advantage to this, but it does reduce the extraneous aspect to Renfield’s presence in the story.

6. There are essentially four acts to the story:
  1. Introduction and the journey to Transylvania,
  2. The encounter in Dracula’s castle,
  3. The trip by sea back to Wismar, and
  4. The events involving Dracula back in Wismar. Murnau’s Act 4, the longest and most important one, is completely different from Stoker’s, and this creates a fundamentally altered vision for the story. Stoker’s Act 4 concerns a pitched battle between Dracula and the forces of Professor Van Helsing. This is a struggle between two nearly-equal adversaries, with Dracula representing the forces of darkness and Van Helsing representing the forces of scientifically-enlightened human reason and technology. Murnau’s Act 4, which covers the spread of plague in (Wisborg) Wismar, invokes the utter dread of some unspeakable, unknowable force bent on total annihilation. Professor Bulwer and scientific technology are inconsequential here. Murnau’s Act 4 is a more disturbing, more primitive, and in my view, far more effective evocation of sheer horror. And the message is different, too: Dracula is defeated by science, while Orlok is defeated by the power of love.
Pursuing further the thematic contrasts between Dracula and Nosferatu in point 6, above, it might be well to reflect on the sometimes perceived difference between two contrasting attitudes concerning horror and science fiction, the “American” and the “British/European”. The American attitude favours freaks and monsters, along with plenty of blood and cheap shock effects to scare the audience. The British/European attitude is said to favour creating a growing sense of dread, the details of which lie uncannily beyond full visual specification. A perfect example of this distinction can be seen in two thematically connected films, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979, British/European) and its sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986, American). In Alien, the creature that has invaded the spaceship is never fully seen and is constantly changing shape. In Aliens, the threatening creatures are good old-fashioned grimacing monsters with claws and fangs. I found Alien to be infinitely superior to Aliens, because Scott’s film leveraged my own imagination to create the horror. So it should be clear that I prefer the British/European attitude to horror and science fiction, while others (those with more limited imaginations, I assume) prefer the American attitude. In any case we can say here that Nosferatu embodies the British/European attitude, while Dracula embodies the American attitude.

So with every change, Murnau improved on Stoker’s story. What about Herzog’s treatment? He followed Murnau’s scenario and approach faithfully, but he introduced further changes of his own. Herzog’s additions and renderings were in fact just as profound as Murnau’s, and the incremental improvement was just as great. It should be mentioned here that Herzog has been the rightful heir to the German Expressionist tradition, and self-consciously so. He famously made a symbolic journey on foot in 1974 from Munich to Paris to visit ailing film scholar Lotte Eisner, whose The Haunted Screen, is the definitive treatment of the German Expressionist film movement. This journey was memorialized in Herzog’s account, Of Walking in Ice. Certainly his approach to the making of Nosferatu displayed reverence to Murnau’s production. But the touches that he added were terrific enhancements.
  • The opening credits are presented over a solemn tour through the mummified tombs of Guanajuato, Mexico, which preserve the horrors of a cholera epidemic in 1833. Several of these shrunken corpses are still clothed, which conjures up images right at the beginningn of this film of a long past holocaust.
  • With Stoker’s copyright expired, Herzog restored the names of the principal characters to those of the original novel. However, he retains Murnau’s character coalescences, so Murnau’s “Ellen” is now “Lucy” (not “Mina”, as you might have expected from Stoker’s novel), and “Knock” is now “Renfield”. The home city of “Wisborg” has not been changed back to Stoker’s London, though, and is now named “Wismar” (which was the assumed real city to which “Wisborg” referred in Murnau’s film). But Wismar isn’t used for the exterior shooting scenes. Instead, Herzog chose to use Delft, with its burgher-style architecture and canals, which conveyed a suitable sense of orderliness that contrasts well with Transylvanian wilderness.
  • The acting in Herzog’s version is, in general, far superior to that of Murnau’s film, even allowing latitude for silent-screen acting conventions. Much of the acting in Herzog’s film is conveyed by physical gesture, anyway, so the actors are effectively performing under the conditions of silent films. Isabelle Adjani, one of the greatest actresses, gives a memorably haunting performance as Lucy, the ethereal agent of faith and love that faces up to Dracula’s hopeless “nothingness”. Much of her expression is conveyed through her eyes and her looks of alarm, despair, and hope. Although Max Schrek was excellent as Count Orlok in Murnau’s film, Klaus Kinski gives a wonderfully controlled performance here as the fatalistic antagonist in Herzog’s film. Roland Topor, a noted novelist, artist and filmmaker in his own right, is superior as Renfield in Herzog's film to the irritatingly over-the-top role of Knock in Murnau’s version. And Bruno Ganz is just right in the role of Jonathon Harker and more believable than the gawky Gustav von Wangenheim, as Hütter.
  • Herzog’s presentation of Act 1, the trip to Transylvania, is much more atmospheric than Murnau’s rendition. His lengthy presentation of beautiful, but brutal, natural mountainous scenes, with craggy rocks and rapid streams, convey both the physical and emotional remoteness of Transylvania much more effectively than Murnau does. He has also added a wonderfully atmospheric scene in which real Gypsies tell Harker scary tales about the dangers and risks of his upcoming journey to Dracula’s castle.
  • The crucial Act 4, which conveys the existential sense of doom in Nosferatu, was about 24 minutes in Murnau’s version, but has been enhanced and expanded to 44 minutes in Herzog’s version. With many additional touches, Herzog creates a vision of a city fallen to a calamitous and hopeless dystopia. Van Helsing, the original voice of faith in human reason, is here reduced to pitiful fragility and impotence, utterly unable to deal with the out-of-control Renfield. There is an added scene in which Dracula visits Lucy in her room and asks for her love. Lucy expresses firm confidence that, despite Dracula’s supernatural powers, the sheer power of her love for Jonathon, whom she loves greater than God, will restore him to her. It is only faith in love that makes us human.
There are additional virtues in Herzog’s film. For example, there is excellent long tracking, hand-held, wide-angle camera work when Harker explores the spooky confines of Dracula’s castle. When Dracula visits Lucy’s bedroom, she sees only his shadow in the mirror and not his reflection, a retention of vampiric lore to which Murnau was sometimes inattentive. In addition, the use of thousands of rats to portray the relentless, invasive spread of pestilence gives a graphical image to our visceral fears of cancer and pandemics.

Overall, Herzog completes the transformation of the Dracula story that Murnau initiated. It is now an existential horror story that captures our society's apocalyptic intimations of doom. In the end with Lucy and much of Wismar annihilated, Harker has become a vampire, himself, and sets out on horseback to wreak further death and the imposition of nothingness on a helpless and unsuspecting world. This is Herzog’s characteristicly pessimistic vision, masterfully brought to perhaps his ultimate expression. It also stands at the top of the scale in the history of horror films.

Bahman Ghobadi

Films of Bahman Ghobadi: